The holiday of Shavuos is next week, b”H, as the Omer Count approaches its end. Like a stairway to Heaven, the 49 days of the Omer have allowed us to ascend without actually physically going anywhere, reminiscent of the rabbis who entered ‘Pardes,’ as mentioned in the Talmud (Chagigah 14b).
Most people have no problem with the concept, and Hollywood has no difficulty making money off of it. Over the years, Box Offices around the world have raked in trillions of dollars from movies whose themes included being able to perform supernatural wonders. The guy who seems to be able to know something without relying upon natural means to know it fascinates us and earns our respect.
The same is true, l’havdil, in the Talmud, except that the Talmud has an explanation for such an ability, as the following story illustrates:
Mar Zutra the son of Rav Nachman asked Rav Nachman: “What is it like?” He answered: “Like a needle in the raw flesh.” But how did he know that? Either because he himself suffered with it, or he had a tradition from his teacher. Or, [he knew it] because, “The secret of God is with them that fear Him . . .” (Tehillim 25:14). (Sanhedrin 48a)
The topic was an illness that Rav Nachman may had never experienced. Hence, the Talmud’s surprise, question, and answer: The secret of God is with them that fear Him. As a result of his fear of God, Rav Nachman, and others like him in the Talmud, and throughout Jewish history for that matter, became privy to knowledge beyond his learning and experience. In Hollywood, they only play act. In the Talmud, it is real.
Someone once wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” How easy it is to forget this, especially when you have suffered as much as the Jewish people have. Devoted we have been, but our lives have seemed anything but supernatural.
In fact, if there is anything supernatural about the Jewish people, it’s the fact that we’re still here, as a people, after all we have gone through at the hands of others. And at our own hands, apparently, for we seem to have a propensity to stab ourselves in the back as well.
This seems especially evident after reading last week’s parshah which speaks about the curses for disobedience, elaborated upon later in Parashas Ki Savo. It is a little more than coincidence that the Torah should threaten the Jewish people as it does, and that history should comply so fully. One might, just out of caution, at least check out the validity of Torah before discarding it, just in case there is a connection between what it says and what has happened, a supernatural connection.
In fact, anti-Semitism is one of the most supernatural things in the entire universe. The Jewish people just don’t look or act different enough to warrant the universal hatred they have been subjected to over the millennia. Even jealousy is not a good enough answer to explain the depth of gentile (and in some extreme cases, Jewish) hatred for the Jew. As a diplomat once said in reference to the Jewish people, “I’m not anti-Semitic. I just hate them!”
The Talmud, somewhat vicariously, makes a connection between the giving of Torah and anti-Semitism:
One of the rabbis asked Rav Kahana: “Has anyone heard why it was called Mt. Sinai?” “It was the mountain upon which miracles [nissim] were performed for the Jewish people,” was the reply.
“Then it should be called Mt. Nisai! Rather, it was the mountain that was a good sign—siman tov—for the Jewish people.”
“Then it should be called, Mt. Simanai!”
He told him, “Why do you not frequent Rav Papa and Rav Huna, the son of Rebi Yehoshua, who study aggadata? For, Rav Chisda and Rabbah, the son of Rav Huna, both said, ‘Why is it called Har Sinai? Because, it was the mountain from which sinah—hatred—descended to the gentile nations.” (Shabbos 89a)
Rashi explains this to mean that the nations of the world became jealous of the Jewish people’s spiritual uniqueness once God singled them out as His special nation and gave them the Torah at Mt. Sinai. However, though this is certainly the source of most Christian and Moslem anti-Semitism over the ages, it was actually Hitler’s, ysv”z, disdain for Torah values that made him think of making the world Judenrein.
In actuality, what happened at Mt. Sinai, as a result of receiving Torah, was that the Jewish people ascended to a higher spiritual plane that sealed the fate of their future. This has oftentimes, over the last two millennia, been for bad, but eventually, it will be only for good, the ultimate good—forever.
The following story, a microcosmic version of Jewish history, makes this point:
Upon their return, they found Rebi Chanina ben Teradyon sitting, involved with Torah. He had gathered many people, and the Sefer Torah was on his lap. They [the Romans] brought him and wrapped him in the Sefer Torah, surrounded him with branches and set them on fire. They placed wet sponges of wool over his heart, so that he should not die quickly. His daughter cried to him, “Father, that I should see you like this!”
He told her, “If it was only me burning, it would be difficult for me. However, I am burning together with a Sefer Torah, and the One Who will avenge the disgrace of this Sefer Torah will avenge my disgrace as well.”
His students asked him, “Rebi, what do you see?”
He answered them, “The parchment burns, but the letters fly up to Heaven.” (Avodah Zarah 18a)
Why did Rebi Chanina use this parable, if not to describe the supernatural nature of the Jewish people? To the onlooker, Rebi Chanina seemed to be tortureable just like the next person, and vulnerable to death like any other insurgent. But that is only the way it appeared to the onlooker. Like the other nine martyrs who died at that time al Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the Name of God, Rebi Chanina transcended the event that pained his body, like the letters that fled upwards from the burning parchment.
Unfortunately, the Jew who does not understand or relate to his supernatural reality is also fooled by the physical events, and tries to work with them, rather than above them. As such, he lacks the wherewithal to transcend the physical reality that binds his body, and worrying about this, he spends a lot of time dealing with it, and not always with great success.
For some, this has meant fighting fire with fire, which means using the tactics of our enemies against them. For others, this has meant joining them rather than fighting them, assimilating to the point of becoming as ‘gentile’ as possible, even though, after all is said and done, both approaches have also not met with long term success.
Hence, in the end, we really have no choice but to accept our supernatural reality as a people, and to live up to it, as the Torah instructs. Only then does history work in our favor in this world as well, and not just in the World-to-Come. Only then can we learn about our supernatural nature through positive events, as opposed to the negative ones.
The holiday of Shavuos is called the “Time of our Torah,” but it is really the time to get real with who we really are as a people, and on which spiritual plane we are destined to exist.
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org